The Tennessee legislature gave final approval to a bill restricting drone use in the state and sent it on to Governor Bill Haslam’s desk on the last day of the legislative session.

A conference committee hammered out differences and both chambers gave approval to SB796/HB591 Friday. The Freedom from Unwarranted Surveillance Act requires law enforcement to obtain a search warrant before deploying a drone.

The act allows four exceptions for drone use without a warrant.

1. To “counter a high risk of a terrorist attack by a specific individual or organization” identified by the Department of Homeland Security.

2. When the law enforcement agency “possesses reasonable suspicion that, under particular circumstances, swift action is needed to prevent imminent danger to life.”

3. To “provide continuous aerial coverage when law enforcement is searching for a fugitive or escapee or is monitoring a hostage situation.”

4. To “provide more expansive aerial coverage when deployed for the purpose of searching for a missing person.”

Even when operating under these exceptions,  “the use of a drone to gather evidence or information shall constitute a search. Any law enforcement agency that uses a drone, or other substantially similar device to gather evidence or obtain information, shall comply in all respects with the fourth amendment to the Constitution of the United States and article I, § 7, of the Constitution of Tennessee. ”

A provision allowing for the use of drones “to protect life and property during crowd monitoring situations,” in the House bill was removed in the final version.

The House approved SB796 after approval in the conference committee 72-17 with two representatives not voting. The Senate initially gave its approval 32-0.

Rep. James “Micah” Van Huss (R-Jonesborough) and Sen. Mae Beavers (R-Mount Juliet) sponsored the legislation. They told the Knoxville News Sentinel that the bill strikes a balance between  allowing use of drones where needed for a legitimate purpose and avoiding governmental intrusion.

Whole some of the exceptions are troubling and vague, currently Tennessee lacks any statute regulating drone use. If Gov. Haslam fails to sign the bill, law enforcement in Tennessee will be able to deploy drones any time, any place and under any circumstances. Even with the exceptions, this act will greatly restrict the use of drones in the Volunteer State. It also leaves the door open for further restrictions in the future.

And make no mistake, Tennessee will use drones. Just  last year, the Nashville Police Department procured two drones with a Department of Homeland Security grant.

DHS grants serve as the primary engine behind the expansion of drone surveillance at the state and local level. The goal? Fund a network of drones around the country and put the operational burden on the states. Once they create a web over the whole country, DHS steps in with requests for ‘information sharing.’ Bills like HB591 put a dent in this kind of long-term strategy. A drone industry lobbyist testifying in opposition to a similar bill in Washington State confirmed this, saying such restrictions would prove extremely destructive to the drone market and industry.

The bill does not address drone use by individuals or corporations, but Beavers and Van Huss  said they may propose legislation on that topic next year.


1. Contact Gov. Haslam and ask him to sign the Freedom from Unwarranted Surveillance Act. If you live in Tennessee, contact the governor’s office and politely but firmly ask him to sign this bill restricting drone use and protecting privacy. You can find contact information HERE.

2.  Encourage your local community to take action as well. Using model legislation from the Tenth Amendment Center, you can introduce legislation to nullify Drones in your city, town, and county with the Privacy Protection Act.

You will find model legislation HERE.

3.  Share this information widely.  Please pass this along to your friends and family.  Also share it with any and all grassroots groups you’re in contact with around the state.  Please encourage them to email this information to their members and supporters.

Mike Maharrey

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